The Abbey at Whitby was one of the earliest Romanesque buildings to be erected in the North of England but my focus today was on the neighbouring church of St Mary. A while ago my friend Chris Corner posted a picture of a head carved on a capital within the church, so on a whim, I headed over the storm-battered moor road to see what I could find.
I’ve visited this church many times in the past but this was prior to my explorations of Early Medieval stonework, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The south door with its arch and carved spiral capitals lifted my spirits.
Inside the church I made my way between the beautiful box pews to the chancel arch. The arch is mostly hidden behind the upper level, the lord of the manor’s pew. There is a second arch over the entrance to the tower but this has been completely hidden behind the organ.
On the capital of the left hand arch is a carving of a head emitting unfurling foliage. This bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Green Man’ carving in Marske Church.
There are other foliate heads to be found locally at Easington, Liverton and Lythe .
One of the capitals on the right hand side of the arch has a carved head with a star on either side. The star is not an uncommon motif on Northern English Early Medieval stonework.
There are other elements of early stone work to be found in and around this lovely church, coupled with the Abbey next door, it is a wonderful place to visit. For me, with the failing light and the howling gale of Storm Barra blowing across the clifftop, it was time to head for home.
The church at Kirklevington has been in existence since the early medieval period. The chancel is Medieval, the rest of the church was rebuilt during the nineteenth century. Many ancients stones were found during the rebuilding of the church and have been incorporated into the fabric of the church.
Inside the porch is the entrance arch to the church. The two orders are a bit of a hodge-podge of weathered stones. There are spirals carved onto the capitals and one has a carving of intertwined serpents which is quite hard to make out.
The Chancel Arch is much more satisfying. The left hand capital is beautifully carved with a man’s head, stars and spirals. Beside the capital is the carving of a lion. The capital on the right side is carved with a headless bird, beside it is a rather damaged carving that has been interpreted as an ox. There is a lovely booklet available at the church which informs us that these carving represent the four evangelists, Mark (lion), Mathew (the head), John (the bird), Luke (the ox).
There are quite a few Cross Slabs within the church. Cross slabs are difficult to date as they were used from the eleventh to the seventeenth century.
There are a number of stones embedded in the external walls including six chevroned stones which may have once formed part of an arch. I’m guessing these were left over from the rebuilding of the doorway arch.
This beautiful door handle is a nod to the ancient origins of the church.
A number of ancient carved stones were discovered during the rebuilding of the church. Many of the ancient cross fragments have been removed from the church and are currently being stored at the Preston Hall Museum, a few are on display. The stone below is part of a cross shaft and is probably my favourite local medieval stone. It is thought to depict the Norse god Odin and his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and mind). Odin’s ravens would fly out into the world and report what they saw to Odin.
Why is Odin depicted on a christian cross?
The early medieval period was a time of transition from the Pagan religions of northern Europe to Christianity. Nothing was straightforward, Pagan kings would succeed Christian Kings and the Christian church itself was split between two traditions, the celtic church and the church of Rome.
It may seem odd to us to see pagan imagery on a Christian cross shaft but the people of the early medieval period would have recognised and understood this imagery. Odin would have been a familiar figure to not only the people of Scandinavian descent but also to people who’s ancestors had travelled to our area from northern Europe.
Odin was known in the Anglo Saxon world as Woden, perhaps Woden was also worshipped in our islands prior to the arrival of the Anglo Saxons. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the majority of the Roman army was comprised of Auxiliaries. These units were manned by soldiers from territories that had fallen to Roman conquest. The majority of the Auxiliaries in our islands were composed of men from northern Europe, lands where Woden was a primary deity.
The Roman tradition was not to suppress the local belief in the gods of the lands they were conquering, they would associate local gods with Roman gods who possessed similar attributes, Woden/Odin was associated with the god Mercury because of his role on guiding the dead to the afterlife. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Northern European tribes worshipped Mercury. Wednesday (Wodin’s Day) is known in Latin as Mercurii dies (‘Day of Mercury’).
This carving has been interpreted as portraying the god Mercury, is in the church at Aldborough, the church is said to have been built on the site of a Roman shrine.
It’s an interesting aside to look at Odin and Jesus. Given the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that Odin may have originated in an older, shamanic-based belief system, if we detach ourselves from our christian assumptions we may also see similar shamanic elements in the life of Jesus.
In becoming a shaman there is generally a requirement for a ritual death and rebirth. Odin achieved this by hanging himself on a tree, Jesus was hung on a cross and then descended into the underworld before being reborn. Whilst on the tree, Odin pierced himself with his spear, whilst Jesus was on the cross he too was pierced with a spear.
Shamans are generally wanderers who undertake spirit journeys, Odin famously wandered in search of enlightenment, Jesus wandered with his small group of followers throughout his later life, the bible records his forty day solo journey into the Sinai desert without food or water. Both Jesus and Odin possessed the ability to speak to and raise the dead, Odin using his magic, Jesus by miraculous means, magic by a different name?
Perhaps the people of the past saw these similarities too. The early Christian church was very different to the church of today, the early Christian world was a place of mystics, demons, miracles, monks and local saints, many of who may have previously followed a pagan tradition.
Odin is thought to have hung himself on Yggdrasil, the world tree. The Pagans of northern Europe also had a world tree, Irminsul. These trees may have had their origins in the shamanic tradition where they symbolised the shaman’s journey between realms. Perhaps the cross represented the same idea to the early christians, an axis between the realms of heaven, earth and the underworld.
Anglian & Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the North Riding of Yorkshire. W.G. Collingwood. YAJ Vol.19. 1907
Yorkshire A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. G Points. 2007
Romanesque Yorkshire. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.9 Rita Wood. 2012
Archaeological Trail. St Martin’s Church. Kirklevington. A pamphlet available from the church.
Yggdrasil Image – Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to Gary & Kate for arranging access to their lovely church.